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Colorado's public lands are faced with new challenges but water and land management depend on working together. Read about the relationship between water and land in Colorado and how Coloradans are converging to restore Colorado's public lands in the Spring 2018 issue of Headwaters magazine.

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Water Education Colorado

Surface Concerns

By Donna Gray

Concerned about water quantity and quality impacts, Coloradans are watching the state's burgeoning natural gas industry and monitoring the effects of dewatering aquifers, discharging produced water and hydraulic fracturing.

Natural gas production is important to Colorado's economy. One of the top natural gas-producing states, outputs from Colorado's basins account for roughly 5 percent of the annual U.S. production. The Piceance Basin in northwestern Colorado holds the second largest proven reserve in the nation, and a lot of promise. Residents and industry use only about 40 percent of the total produced, though. The rest is transported to California and Midwest markets.

Oil and mining companies pay severance taxes to the state for removing nonrenewable resources. The taxes produce funds—in 2006, an estimated $242 million—for a wide variety of public purposes. For instance, cities and towns split $16.7 million. The tax revenue supports the Colorado Water Conservation Board's construction loan and trust fund operation accounts. Earlier this year, the board approved loans of $75 million and $60 million, respectively, for Aurora's Prairie Waters project and construction of the long-delayed Arkansas Valley Conduit.

Yet the increased production in recent years is accompanied by citizens' concerns as drill and pumping rigs punctuate vistas.

From homeowners to government officials, Coloradans are watching the industry and monitoring the effects of dewatering aquifers, discharging produced water and hydraulic fracturing.

Gwen Lachelt, director of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project in Durango, says she's received many complaints from people in the area about contaminated or affected water wells.

‘People say, 'I have so much methane in my well, I can light it on fire,' or 'I've lost mine (my water) altogether.' The water issues are huge here,’ says Lachelt.

Several methods of natural gas production are employed in Colorado. In coalbed methane production, where wells are drilled to capture methane in coal deposits, energy companies must de-water underground aquifers before the methane is released.

The result, called produced water, can be discharged into nearby streams or injected into disposal wells. Other options exist, such as spraying the water on dirt roads to control dust.

According to an EPA report this year, an average coalbed methane well discharges about a million gallons of water per week, or about ‘the same amount of water 100,000 people would drink over their lifetimes.’ Often the water is highly saline and has elevated levels of total dissolved solids. The EPA calls produced water ‘the number one waste management issue related to (gas) drilling and production operations.’

To get the gas out of what are known as the tight sands of the Piceance Basin in western Colorado, hydraulic fracturing is used to release the gas from narrow lenses in the rock formations. Water, sand and various chemicals are pumped into a well bore under high pressure, breaking apart the rock. The sand particles hold the fractures open so the gas can flow into the well.

On average, 2 million gallons of water are pumped into a well during fracturing. Water laced with crude petroleum or hydrocarbons is also produced. Contaminated water is disposed of in evaporation pits on drill pads or trucked to commercial evaporation pits.

Gas operations may also affect water quality. If runoff is allowed to flow unchecked off well pads or roads, it can cause erosion and carry sediment and contaminants to nearby streams or lakes.

People living in areas where gas wells are drilled have complained drilling has contaminated water wells, caused serious health problems and dried up seeps, springs and wells. They also contend produced water released into streams where they draw irrigation water has damaged their crops.

In 2001, Laura and Larry Amos, hunting outfitters who lived south of Silt in the middle of a gas field, told the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission that their well literally blew up like a geyser one day. Afterward, the water that came out of their tap fizzed, bubbled, and smelled bad. The bad water, they claimed, was caused by fracturing at a nearby EnCana Oil and Gas (USA) well.

Two years later, Laura was diagnosed with an adrenal gland tumor, which was treated successfully. She claimed toxic chemicals used in the fracturing of the well caused her health problems.

In 2006, after a lengthy series of hearings before the COGCC, which regulates natural gas operations in the state, EnCana was fined $176,800 for contaminating the Amos well and a well on a neighbor's property. COGCC tested the water in both wells and found they contained methane produced by the EnCana well. Tests did not show evidence of fracturing fluids.

Similar water well problems have been reported in the San Juan Basin, where coalbed methane development is taking place. In 2006, the Department of Natural Resources released a study that linked the draw-down of underground aquifers and the depletion of area streams in the basin to coalbed methane drilling. The report predicted a loss of 160 to 170 acre feet of water a year in the San Juan Basin over the next 20 to 30 years of gas activity. By comparison, the report also noted that amount is less than the amount of water drained by domestic water wells in the San Juan Basin in a year.

Driven by concerns about the potential effects of the gas industry on water quality, and to get a better handle on ground and surface water characteristics south of Silt, Garfield County commissioned a hydro-geologic characterization study that found the area is riddled with natural faults and fractures that could become pathways for production gas to escape above ground.

The study also found that water quality was naturally poor in much of the area. Contaminants such as sodium, selenium and nitrates were found in water wells that exceeded safe drinking water standards. Natural methane also occurs in high volumes in some water wells. The study did not directly connect gas drilling with water quality.

Water quality is protected by federal, state and to some extent, local regulations. The EPA is responsible for water under the Clean Water Act. This statute and its implementing regulations apply, for example, to waste water treatment plants which discharge waster into streams and rivers. In the 1990s, concern grew about nonpoint source pollution, which can't be linked to a particular source, such as a sewer plant, says Dave Merritt, district engineer with the Colorado River Water Conservation District in Glenwood Springs.

‘Storm water runoff is the largest source of non-point source pollution in the state,’ he says. ‘States have primacy (over the EPA) in water quality regulations.’

The state Water Quality Control Commission, a division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, has regulations in place for construction sites that disturb more than five acres of land. Contractors are required to prevent sediment from running off construction sites using storm water fencing and hay bales, among other measures, to prevent erosion. What the WQCC was not regulating were well pads that are generally less than five acres in size.

The federal Energy Policy Act, signed into law in August 2005, exempted energy companies from federal water quality permitting. The following April, the WQCC promulgated storm water runoff regulations that applied to natural gas construction operations. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Petroleum Association sued to block the WQCC regulations, but the suit was eventually withdrawn. The WQCC conducted public hearings in January 2006 and representatives of the industry said by all rights the COGCC should have authority over storm water control. The WQCC received more than 2,400 public comment letters, most of them urging the commission to adopt the regulations. After the hearings, the WQCC adopted the storm water regulations, which apply to oil and gas construction sites of one to five acres. Once construction is completed and gas activity begins, COGCC has jurisdiction.

Some of the most intensive gas drilling in the nation is in western Colorado, along the Colorado River, which provides drinking water for many communities. Several of those towns and cities have seen gas operations move closer or into their watersheds and have taken steps to prevent drilling from harming water quality.

In 1994, Rifle passed a watershed protection ordinance that requires anyone planning a ground-disturbing activity to obtain a permit from the city.

‘The purpose was to regulate activities that posed a threat to water quality,’ says Rifle city attorney Lee Leavenworth. The city requires energy companies to get watershed permits, which include storm water management and spill prevention plans.

‘The biggest hassle is getting the companies educated about the process,’ says Rifle City Manager John Hier. Some were unaware permits were required and the city imposed fines. ‘They were not huge fines,’ Hier says, but just enough to get their attention. He hasn't seen any problems with water contamination, and the permits require annual inspections, so any corrections that need to be made are completed.

Durango adopted an ordinance to control drilling within city limits. Based on a similar ordinance in Greeley, which has 300 gas wells in its city limits, the Durango rule requires a 350-foot setback from buildings, and companies must notify neighbors before flaring or burning gas off a well.

La Plata County regulated gas drilling through its land use code.

‘The county has made a huge difference as a go-between the land owners and industry,’ says Oil and Gas Accountability Project's Lachelt. The county requires on-site inspection with energy companies and surface land owners. Setbacks are 400 feet between a well and a building and noise and visual mitigation rules also apply, she says. ‘It's really a good set of oil and gas rules. It works and county staff enforces the regulations.’

In what might be seen as something of an unusual move, one county in western Colorado has also chosen to put gas development rules in place although it does not have a lot of activity. San Miguel County, whose county seat is Telluride, adopted regulations last year.

‘We saw the level of activity increase in the last several years and with what's going on in Garfield County, we had a bunch of people concerned about impacts and they requested the county do something,’ says count attorney Steve Zwick.

‘Although we've had limited development, there was a huge increase in lands nominated for (gas) leasing by BLM,’ says county planner Mike Rosycki. Framing the regulations had its own set of challenges. He says it was difficult to strike a balance that didn't over-step the county's regulatory authority, but still controlled surface impacts. The county also had to recognize the rights of energy companies to develop the gas and the needs of surface owners to limit disturbance.

‘We sat down with a diverse group’ of energy companies, private land owners, and conservation groups to review the regulations, Rosycki says. Among the requirements are reclamation of surface damage and protection of wetlands, and a ‘big one for the public, stringent notice requirements so folks know what's going on’ in the development process, he says.

Two of the top-producing companies in the state, Williams Production and EnCana Oil & Gas (USA), have taken steps beyond what's required under state regulations to protect water quality. EnCana constructed a water treatment plant south of Silt to treat water from 24 experimental coalbed methane wells. The plant filters highly saline water produced by the wells and reduces total dissolved solids to an acceptable level, says Mark Thrush, an engineer with EnCana. Water from the plant is then released into a nearby stream.

Last year Williams installed coded wooden stakes in areas of the gas fields which alert reclamation contractors to the specific need, whether its hay bales around a well pad or a culvert under a road. They look up the code on the stake in Williams' best management practices handbook which lays out installation procedures for specific erosion control devices.

As contractors, the COGCC, and BLM become accustomed to seeing the stakes, ‘the complaint calls have been reduced by 75 percent,’ says Williams' senior environmental specialist Rob Bleil. Williams' aim ‘is zero percent discharge’ from pads and roads.

Encouraged by concerned citizens, state and local governments are more aware than ever about the need to protect water quality. And with the average life of a gas well estimated to be about 30 years, that's a long-term commitment.

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